ICS Professor Susanne Still with colleague Gavin Crooks from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have been awarded $129,000 from the Foundational Questions Institute for their project “Foundations of information processing in living systems”.
Project Summary: Despite the huge amount of new data on biological systems, the question of “What is Life” remains outstanding. In particular, are there organizing principles whose action clearly separates living from nonliving systems? One candidate is energy efficiency. A more subtle possible principle is informational in nature, that of predictive inference. If a life form can predict some aspect of its environment, then it can respond more appropriately. We have recently pointed out that these two concepts are fundamentally related physically, by exposing the direct tie between energetic inefficiency and inefficient use of system memory: retaining memory that is not useful for prediction. We will develop these ideas further, paying particular attention to processing speed. Intuitively, there should be a trade-off between energy efficiency, and how quickly an organism has to act. Predictive inference is further affected by an organism’s ability to change its own environment. Finally, we will explore if, on a microscopic level, quantum effects could allow for more efficient information processing. Altogether, the proposed research might lead to a sharper understanding of what it means to be alive, by providing an operational definition, based on information and the processing thereof.
For more information, see the FQXi Awards Page